Douglas Wood writes about the Naturalist’s Scenic Motorcycle Tour of Minnesota that took him through tall pines. / Photo courtesy of Douglas Wood
Written by Douglas Wood
I’ve loved the feeling since I was a little boy, hanging my head out the back window of my granddad’s sedan on a country road, smelling sweet clover and fresh-cut hay, hearing just a snatch of a meadowlark’s song, the rest of the melody gone in the rushing wind. Loved it until the moment my grandmother’s voice cut through — “Douglas! Get your head in from the window before you lose it!”
No, I don’t hang my head out the car window anymore. Not much, anyway. But I do love to ride a motorcycle, to get that same sensory rush, the sweet-smelling, cascading green tonic of the outdoor world. And recently I had the chance to go for the best sort of a ride, perhaps the first of its kind, the guided Naturalist’s Scenic Motorcycle Tour of Minnesota.
The trip was offered through the Audubon Center of the North Woods, where my son Bryan is co-director, and I was one of the naturalist-guides. Bryan did most of the work. Riding “sweep” in the back of the pack, I sometimes felt like the kid with his head out the window in the back seat, all the beauties of summer rushing by.
We began at the Audubon Center near Sandstone, meeting up with Bryan’s good friend Nick Plante, who would drive the SAG (support and gear) van and would prove to be Johnny-on-the-spot helpful all week. The other six rider-participants arrived at about 8:30 a.m., swatting at a hungry hatch of mosquitoes. We thought they might plague us the whole trip. But as we rode away from the center we rode away from the bugs. Mostly.
Up old Minnesota Highway 23 we went, the scenic “back door” to Jay Cooke State Park and Duluth and the Skyline Drive, still partly closed from last summer’s flash floods. But we rode enough of it to catch the view, a mostly azure sky over a gray quilt of fog shrouding the big lake. Bryan told the gang about the annual fall migration of hawks and raptors, the north shore of the lake acting as a funnel and pushing them over Hawk Ridge. By the tens of thousands they soar and circle and kettle, and people from all over the country come to see them — the broad-wings, sharp-shins, Cooper’s hawks and more.
From the ridge it was down to old Minnesota Highway 61 and along the North Shore, The Minnesota Drive in many folks’ minds. And who can argue, riding the state’s rugged “ocean coast,” past Castle Danger and through the Silver Cliff tunnel, stopping to soak up Palisade Head and Split Rock Lighthouse and Gooseberry Falls. The road winds and meanders along the shore, one scenic wonder following another.
Toward evening, we turned up Minnesota Highway 1 for a few miles and camped in a poetic little spot under balsam firs beside the Baptism River. That evening brought one of the few complaints of the trip, the group insisting the marshmallows packed were too sticky and glommed together, and unsuitable for proper s’mores. There were noises about stopping in Ely the next morning and re-supplying. But the Baptism sang her lullaby, and though the night was cold, the sleep was sound.
Morning brought fresh campfire coffee and the ride up twisty Highway 1 through the heart of the North Woods, over the Kawishiwi River and into Ely, where the defective marshmallows were replaced. Then it was down Minnesota Highway 169 toward the Iron Range, and along the way, our only rain of the trip. We pulled gladly into a city park in Virginia, and under the roof of a picnic shelter feasted on three kinds of sausage, cheese, bread, fruit and PBJ, as we listened to the rain and thunder overhead.
When the rain quit, we were back on the road toward the Edge of the Wilderness loop and Minnesota Highway 38, with a planned stop at Scenic State Park. How I loved it there, 300-year-old white and red pines towering over a 1935 Civilian Conservation Corps log lodge, all overlooking a blue gem of a lake edged with virgin timber. It was there JoyGenea magically found her husband, Tom, his No. 1 goal of the trip, a cluster of showy lady’s slipper, which he had never seen. Something about the big trees and the smoky old lodge of this park resonated deeply within me, and I felt I could have happily stayed all week. But we had a ride to make.
So on we went. We skirted the shores of big Lake Winnibigoshish and its wild rice beds, on to Lake Bemidji State Park then Itasca, standing awestruck beneath what was until recently the state’s largest white pine. A windstorm robbed it of some of its height, but it is overwhelming still. Then we leaned our way down some of the winding-est, snake-iest, twistiest two-lane roads you ever saw through glacial moraine country, to delightful Maplewood State Park and evening camp, where loons and coyotes serenaded us through the night.
The next day, the cycles took us out on the big prairie, where a big wind was blowing as it often does. And as we rode our way toward Minnesota’s “west coast,” the bikes danced across the asphalt. We made Lake Traverse and the birth of the Red River of the North, and just south of it, Big Stone Lake and the hauntingly beautiful Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, where the Minnesota River begins its journey. Two great rivers beginning in nearly the same place, flowing in opposite directions — one watershed to Hudson Bay, the other to the Gulf of Mexico.
Back on the bikes, we battled the wind toward Glacial Lakes State Park to camp beneath its grove of white oaks on the grassy prairie; and when the sun rose, we were on our way, this time to Little Falls and Charles A. Lindbergh’s boyhood home, then on past a wildly windswept Mille Lacs Lake, where kite-surfers were having a field day. And then, somehow, after a dash through the tamaracs and spruces, past a few more marshes filled with redwings, we were back where we’d begun.
But the trip wasn’t really over. Because there is always more to see, especially in Minnesota. And sometimes you just have to throw a leg over a bike and go see it. Or at least hang your head out the window.